Minsky, the Lucas Critique, & the Great Moderation

Last week, I noted that the post-2008 world had provided an astonishingly good test for Milton Friedman’s notion that stabilising M2 growth was an effective antidote for economic depressions. Bernanke stabilised M2 growth, yet the depressive effects such as elevated unemployment, elevated long-term unemployment, and depressed growth still appeared, although not to such a great extent as was experienced in the 1930s. Friedman-style macro-stabilisation may have succeeded in reducing the damage, but in terms of preventing the onset of a depression Friedman’s ideas failed.

Of course, the onset of the post-2008 era was in many ways also a failure of the previous regime, and its so-called Great Moderation. Ben Bernanke in 2004 famously noted that “one of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility”.  Bernanke saw successful monetary policy as a significant reason for this stabilisation:

The historical pattern of changes in the volatilities of output growth and inflation gives some credence to the idea that better monetary policy may have been a major contributor to increased economic stability. As Blanchard and Simon (2001) show, output volatility and inflation volatility have had a strong tendency to move together, both in the United States and other industrial countries. In particular, output volatility in the United States, at a high level in the immediate postwar era, declined significantly between 1955 and 1970, a period in which inflation volatility was low. Both output volatility and inflation volatility rose significantly in the 1970s and early 1980s and, as I have noted, both fell sharply after about 1984. Economists generally agree that the 1970s, the period of highest volatility in both output and inflation, was also a period in which monetary policy performed quite poorly, relative to both earlier and later periods (Romer and Romer, 2002). Few disagree that monetary policy has played a large part in stabilizing inflation, and so the fact that output volatility has declined in parallel with inflation volatility, both in the United States and abroad, suggests that monetary policy may have helped moderate the variability of output as well.

Bernanke’s presumptive successor, Janet Yellen explained in 2009 that from a Minskian perspective, this drop in visible volatility was itself symptomatic of underlying troubles beneath the surface:

One of the critical features of Minsky’s world view is that borrowers, lenders, and regulators are lulled into complacency as asset prices rise.It was not so long ago — though it seems like a lifetime — that many of us were trying to figure out why investors were demanding so little compensation for risk. For example, long-term interest rates were well below what appeared consistent with the expected future path of short-term rates. This phenomenon, which ended abruptly in mid-2007, was famously characterized by then-Chairman Greenspan as a “conundrum.” Credit spreads too were razor thin. But for Minsky, this behavior of interest rates and loan pricing might not have been so puzzling. He might have pointed out that such a sense of safety on the part of investors is characteristic of financial booms. The incaution that reigned by the middle of this decade had been fed by roughly twenty years of the so-called “great moderation,” when most industrialized economies experienced steady growth and low and stable inflation.

Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis can be thought of as an instance of the Lucas Critique applied to macro-stabilisation. Lucas’ contribution — earlier stated by Keynes — is that agents alter their behaviour and expectations in response to policy.  By enacting stabilisation policies, policy makers change the expectations and behaviour of economic agents. In the Minskian world, the promise and application of macro-stabilisation policies can lead to economic agents engaging in increasingly risky behaviour. A moderation is calm on the surface — strong growth, low inflation — but turbulent in the ocean deep where economic agents believing the hype of the moderation take risks they would otherwise not. In a Minskian world, these two things are not separate facts but deeply and intimately interconnected. Whichever way monetary policy swings, there will still be a business cycle. Only fiscal policy — direct spending on job creation that is not dependent on market mood swings — can bring down unemployment in such a context while the market recovers its lost panache.

The march of monetarists — following the lead of Scott Sumner — toward nominal GDP targeting, under which the central bank would target a level of nominal GDP, is a symptom of Friedman’s and the Great Moderation’s failure. If stabilising M2 growth had worked, nobody would be calling for stabilising other monetary aggregates like M4 growth, or stabilising the nominal level of economic activity in the economy. Sumner believes by definition, I think, that the policies enacted by Bernanke following 2008 were “too tight”, and that much more was needed.

Of course, what the NGDP targeters seem to believe is that they can have their Great Moderation after all if only they are targeting the right variable. This view is shared by other groups, with varying clinical pathways. Followers of von Mises’ business cycle theory believe that an uninhibited market will not exhibit a business cycle, as they believe that the business cycle is a product of government artificially suppressing interest rates. Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis and its notion that stability is destabilising is a slap in the face to all such moderation hypotheses. The more successful the moderation, the more economic agents will gradually change their behaviour to engage in increasingly risky activities, and the more bubbles will form, eventually destabilising the system once again. Markets are inherently tempestuous.

Or at least that is the theory. It would be nice to see empirical confirmation that the moderation produced by Sumnerian NGDP targeting is just as fragile and breakable as the Great Moderation. Which, of course, requires some monetary regimes somewhere to practice NGDP targeting.

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Can Tightening Fight the Collateral Shortage?

Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge claims that any taper in QE will be a response to the collateral shortage — the fact that quantitative easing has stripped an important part of the market’s collateral base for rehypothecation out of the market. With less collateral in the market, there is less of a base for credit creation. The implication here is that quantitative easing is tightening rather than easing credit conditions. The evidence? Breakdown in the Treasuries market resulting in soaring fails-to-deliver and fails-to-receive:


Tyler notes:

Simply put, the main reason the Fed is tapering has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the TBAC presentation (rehypothecation and collateral shortages) and that the US is now running smaller deficits!!!

I don’t disagree with this. The ultra-low rate environment (that is still an ultra-low rate environment in spite of the small spike in Treasuries since murmurs of the taper began) on everything from Treasuries to junk bonds is symptomatic of a collateral shortage. Quantitative easing may ease the base money supply (as an anti-deflationary response to the ongoing deflation of the shadow money supply since 2008), but it tightens the supply of collateral.

The evidence on this is clear — expanding government deficits post-2008 did not bridge the gap in securities issuance that the financial crisis and central bank interventions created:


The obvious point, at least to me, is that it seems easier and certainly less Rube Goldberg-esque to fight the collateral shortage by running bigger Federal deficits until private market securities issuance can take its place. Unfortunately quantitative easing itself is something of a Rube Goldberg machine with an extremely convoluted transmission mechanism, and fiscal policy is not part of the Fed’s mandate.

But I am not sure that tightening can fight the collateral shortage at all. The money supply is still shrunken from the pre-crisis peak (much less the pre-crisis trend) even after all the quantitative easing. Yes, many have talked of the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply, but the broadest measures of the money supply are smaller than they were before the quantitative easing even started. This deflation is starting to show up in price trends, with core PCE falling below 1% — its lowest level in history. Simply, without the meagre inflation of the money supply that quantitative easing is providing, steep deflation seems highly likely. I don’t think the Fed can stop.

Does Easy Monetary Policy Enrich the Financial Sector?

Yesterday, I strongly insinuated that easy monetary policy enriches the financial sector at the expense of the wider society. I realise that I need to illustrate this more fully than just to say that when the central bank engages in monetary policy, the financial sector gets the new money first and so receives an ex nihilo transfer of purchasing power (the Cantillon Effect).

The first inkling I had that this could be the case was looking at the effects of quantitative easing (monetary base expansion) on equities (S&P500 Index), corporate profits and employment.

While quantitative easing has dramatically reinflated corporate profits, and equities, it has not had a similar effect on employment (nor wages).

However there are lots other factors involved (including government layoffs), and employment (and wages) is much stickier than either corporate profits or equities. It will be hard to fully assess the effects of quantitative easing on employment outcomes without more hindsight (but the last four years does not look good).

What is clear, though, is that following QE financial sector profits have rebounded spectacularly toward the pre-2008 peak, while nonfinancial sector profits have not:

Yet it is not true that in recent years the growth of financial profits or financial assets has been preceded by growth in the monetary base; the peak for financial profits occurred before QE even began. In fact, the growth in the monetary base from 2008 reflects a catching-up relative to the huge growth seen in credit since the end of Bretton Woods. During the post-Bretton Woods era, growth of financial assets in the financial sector has significantly outpaced growth of financial assets in the nonfinancial sector, and growth of household financial assets:

This disparity has not been driven by growth in the monetary base, which lagged behind until 2008. Instead it has been driven by other forms of money supply growth, specifically credit growth.

This is the relationship between financial sector asset growth, and growth of the money supply:

And growth of the money supply inversely correlates with changes in the Federal Funds rate; in other words, as interest rates have been lowered credit creation has spiked, and vice verse:

The extent to which M2 is driven by the Federal Funds rate (or vice verse) is not really relevant; the point is that the Fed’s chosen transmission mechanism is inherently favourable to the financial sector.

The easing of credit conditions (in other words, the enhancement of banks’ ability to create credit and thus enhance their own purchasing power) following the breakdown of Bretton Woods — as opposed to monetary base expansion — seems to have driven the growth in credit and financialisation. It has not (at least previous to 2008) been a case of central banks printing money and handing it to the financial sector; it has been a case of the financial sector being set free from credit constraints.

This would seem to have been accentuated by growth in nontraditional credit products (what Friedrich Hayek called pseudo-money, in other words non-monetary credit) in the shadow banking sector:

Similarly, derivatives:

Monetary policy in the post-Bretton Woods era has taken a number of forms; interest rate policy, monetary base policy, and regulatory policy. The association between growth in the financial sector, credit growth and interest rate policy shows that monetary growth (whether that is in the form of base money, credit or nontraditional credit instruments) enriches the recipients of new money as anticipated by Cantillon.

This underscores the need for a monetary and credit system that distributes money in a way that does not favour any particular sector — especially not the endemically corrupt financial sector.


Tyler Durden answers my question in one graph:

The World Before Central Banking

In today’s world, there are many who want government to regulate and control everything. The most bizarre instance, though — more bizarre even than banning the sale of large-sized sugary drinks — is surely central banking.

Why? Well, central banking was created to replace something that was already working well. Banking panics and bank runs happen, and they have always happened as long as there has been banking.

But the old system that the Fed displaced wasn’t really malfunctioning — unlike what the defenders of central banking today would have us believe. Following the Panic of 1907, a group of private bankers led by J.P. Morgan successfully bailed out the system by acting as lender of last resort. The amount of new liquidity disbursed into the system was set not by academics like Ben Bernanke, but by experienced market participants. And because the money was directed from private purses, rather than being created out of thin air, only assets and companies with value were bought up.

The rationale of the supporters of the Federal Reserve Act was that a central banking liquidity mechanism would act as a safeguard against such events, to act as a permanent lender-of-last-resort backed by government fiat. They wanted something bigger and better than a private response.

Yet the Banking Panic of 1907 — a comparable market drop to both 1929 or 2008 — didn’t result in a residual depression.

As the WSJ noted:

The largest economic crisis of the 20th century was the Great Depression, but the second most significant economic upheaval was the panic of 1907. It was from beginning to end a banking and financial crisis. With the failure of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, the stock market collapsed, loan supply vanished and a scramble for liquidity ensued. Banks defaulted on their obligations to redeem deposits in currency or gold.

Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, in their classic “A Monetary History of the United States,” found “much similarity in its early phases” between the Panic of 1907 and the Great Depression. So traumatic was the crisis that it gave rise to the National Monetary Commission and the recommendations that led to the creation of the Federal Reserve. The May panic triggered a massive recession that saw real gross national product shrink in the second half of 1907 and plummet by an extraordinary 8.2% in 1908. Yet the economy came roaring back and, in two short years, was 7% bigger than when the panic started.

Ben Bernanke, widely seen as the pre-eminent scholar of the Great Depression thought things would be much, much better under his watch. After all, he has claimed that he understood the lessons of Friedman and Schwartz who criticised the 1930s Federal Reserve for continuing to contract the money supply, worsening the Great Depression; M2 in 1933 was just 72% of its 1929 peak.

So a bigger crash and liquidation in 1907 allowed the economy to roar back, and continue growing. Meanwhile, in today’s controlled, planned and dependent world of central liquidity insurance, quantitative easing and TARP, growth remains anaemic four years after the crash. Have the last four years proven conclusively that central banking — even after the lessons of the 1930s — is inferior to the free market?

Certainly, Bernanke’s response to 2008 has been superior to the 1930s Fed — M2 has not dropped by anything like what it did from 1929:

Industrial production has not fallen by as significant an amount as 1929, nor has homebuilding. And there are many other wide-scale economic differences between 1907 and 2008 in terms of the shape of the economy, and the shape of employment, the capital structure, and the wider geopolitical reality. But the bounce-back is still vastly inferior to the free-market reality of 1907. I think there are greater problems to central banking, ones of which Friedman, Schwartz and Bernanke were unaware (but of which Rothbard and von Mises were acutely aware).

Does central banking retard the economy by providing liquidity insurance and a backstop to bad companies that would not otherwise be saved under a free market “bailout” (like that of 1907)? And is it this effect — that I call zombification — that is the force that has prevented Japan from fully recovering from its housing bubble, and that is keeping the West depressed from 2008? Will we only return to growth once the bad assets and bad companies have been liquidated? That conclusion, I think, is becoming inescapable.

The Inevitability of Default?

From Buttonwood:

While Greece continues to inch its way towards a [now completed] deal with its EU partners, the creditors of a much-larger debtor, the US government, appear to be untroubled. Ten-year Treasury bonds still yield just 2%. But the issue of how the US addresses its long-term fiscal problems is, as yet, unresolved. A series of papers from the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University in Washington DC, called “Tipping Point Scenarios and Crash Dynamics” attempts to address the issue.

Perhaps the most provocative paper comes from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel who reasons that default is virtually inevitable because a) federal tax revenue will never consistently rise much above 20% of GDP, b) politicians have little incentive to come up with the requisite expenditure cuts in time and c) monetary expansion and its accompanying inflation will no more be able to close the fiscal gap than would an excise tax on chewing gum. Most controversially, he argues that “the long-term consequences (of default), both economic and political, could be beneficial, and the more complete the repudiation, the greater the benefits.”

Why does he take this view? Allowing for the Treasuries owned by the Fed, the trust funds and foreigners, total default could cost the US private sector about $4 trillion. In contrast, the fall in the stockmarket from 2007 to 2008 cost around $10 trillion. In compensation, however, the US taxpayer would no longer have to service the debt; their future liabilities would be lower.

It’s nice to know I’m not just one lone voice in the wilderness.  But I think most readers already knew most of this. There is significant empirical evidence that when the problem is excessive systemic debt, neither austerity nor inflation are sufficient tools to really reduce the debt. Austerity tends to bring the problem to a head, while inflation tends to kick the can down the road. The latter may stabilise the system, but as we have seen in Japan, this does not necessitate recovery. If we want real debt erasure, we need measures that really erase debt.

By building a new system we can open a window onto whole new world of possibilities for reform. One possibility is the return of Glass-Steagall-style separation between investment and retail banking, and a complete ban on complex derivatives contracts.

And there is nothing morally wrong with default. Investors in government debt should do their due diligence, and be aware that for all the political bleating and obsequious promises from politicians, ratings agencies and Warren Buffet there is always a risk of default with sovereign debt. Debt is only ever as good as its issuers ability to generate sufficient revenues.

There was never any guarantee that this era of unrestrained credit creation, globalisation, job migration and American imperialism could go on forever.

Default & the Argentinosaurus

One thing is clear:

A huge mountain of interlocking, interconnected debt is a house of cards, and a monetary or financial system based upon such a thing is prone to collapse by default-cascade: one weak link in the chain breaks down the entire system.

But the next collapse of the debt-pyramid is a long-term trend that may be a long way — and a whole host of bailouts — away yet. A related but different problem is that of government spending. Here’s American government debt-to-GDP since the end of WW2:

After reducing the national debt to below 40% in the 70s and 80s America’s credit binges since that era have quickly piled on and on to the point that without a major war like World War 2, the national debt is above 100% of GDP, and therefore in a similar region to that period.

Simply, America’s government must find a way not only of balancing the budget, but of producing enough revenue to pay down the debt. This has inspired the current crop of Republican nominees to produce a slew of deficit-reduction plans, including Herman Cain’s hole-ridden 9-9-9 plan  which shifts a significant burden of taxation from the wealthy and onto the middle classes. Worse still, taxes on spending hurt the economy by discouraging spending. Want to expand your business with the purchase of new capital goods? 9% tax. Want to increase revenues through advertising? 9% tax. Want to spend your earnings on goods? 9% tax. That’s a hardly a policy that will encourage economic activity in an economy that is (for better or worse) led by consumption.

Whichever way the tax burden falls, the sad reality is that any plan that focuses on taxing-more-than-disbursing is just sucking productive capital out of the economy, constraining growth. The other “remedy” inflating the currency (to inflate away the debt), punishes savers, whose investment is necessary for productive growth.

Dean Baker shows a historical case of such an event. Argentina, crippled by its peg to the dollar, defaulted on its debt since 2001:

All the crushing weight of taking productive capital out of the economy crushed growth. Then Argentina defaulted on its debts, and rebounded, astonishingly. Of course, most of blogosphere is looking at Greece in this debate. I am not, because I recognise the Argentinosaurus in the room: America’s foreign-held debt load (payment for all those Nixonian free lunches) is undermining the dollar’s status as global reserve currency, a pattern of development that will ultimately force exporters — on whom America relies — out of exporting to America for worthless sacks of paper and digital. International trade has always been on a quid pro quo basis — and since 1971 that has worked fine for America — dollars have been a necessary prerequisite to acquire oil, other commodities and supplies and pay dollar-denominated debts.

So I think the time has come to explicitly advocate a radical solution to save the dollar — but just as importantly to save the middle classes, and productive capital from the punitive taxation (and welfare cuts) required by austerity.

America needs to balance its budget by gradually (and with negotiation) defaulting on its debts. The first prong of this is totally defaulting on the debt held by the Federal Reserve — this is simply just a circuitous way of cycling money from government to a private agency and back again to the government, while the private agency (the Fed) pays member banks 6% annual no-risk dividends. The second prong is to begin negotiations with international creditors to revalue American debt proportionate to what America can afford to pay in the long run.

Far from infuriating creditors, I think that the evidence shows that this move would benefit everyone. A strong American economy is important to Eurasian producers and exporters. An American-economy dragged down by debt-forced-austerity means a smaller market to sell to, and to gain investment from. The only significant counter-demand for such an arrangement might be a balanced-budget amendment, so that America could no longer borrow more than it can raise in revenues.

Of course, there are other avenues to explore: slashing military spending (and giving the money back to the taxpayer, or to the jobless, or to infrastructure programs) is one such avenue: as I have explained at length before, American military spending is subsidising a flat-market, and making non-American goods artificially competitive in America.

But the real issue today is that liberals mostly want to talk about higher taxes, and conservatives mostly want to talk about austerity. They’re missing the Argentinosaurus in the room: the transfer of wealth from the American public — and the productive American economy — to foreign (and domestic) creditors, and the downward pressure that this is exerting on American output.

Debts — even AAA-rates debt (or AAAAAAAAA as an Oracle once put it) — all carry risk: the risk that the debtor is getting into too much debt and won’t be able to pay back his obligations in a timely or honest fashion. Creditors are making a mistake to be ending money to a fiscal nightmare whose only economic refuge is money printing.

So will America continue to tread the bone-ridden road of austerity, high taxation and crushing economic contraction, leading to excessive money-printing, and ending in the death of the dollar and an inflationary firestorm? Or will it choose the sustainable route of negotiated default, low taxes, a return to productive, organic growth, and the opportunity to decrease reliance on foreign energy and goods?

What’s that sound? No, not the crashing Argentinosaurus.

Why QE Didn’t Cause Hyperinflation

Ben Bernanke, and the Keynesians were right: Quantitative Easing has not caused the kind of inflation that the non-mainstream Austrian economists claimed that it would. The theory was that a soaring monetary base, and the zero-interest-rate-policy would lead to easy money flowing like a tsunami, and creating such a gush that inflation on goods and services — the change in cost from month-to-month and year-to-year — would soar, making daily life impossible for those on fixed incomes, and in a worst-case-scenario — like Zimbabwe, or Weimar Germany — forcing consumers to use an armful or wheelbarrow of cash to purchase a loaf of bread. Let’s look at the monetary base:

That is a huge spike!The monetary base — also known as M0 — is the total amount of coins, paper and bank deposits in the economy. Quantitative easing injects new money into the monetary base, and as we can see above, has great increased it. So why can I still buy bread without a wheelbarrow? That is because the monetary base and the money supply are two different things. In a fractional-reserve banking system, deposits in banks can be lent, re-deposited, and lent again. Government policy determines the number of times that money can be lent — in the United States, total credit cannot exceed lending by more than ten times. The money supply — which accounts for fractional reserve lending — is known as M2. Let’s look at it:

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